Colombian peace talks hope to end decades of conflict
Colombia’s government and Marxist rebels will sit down this week to start peace talks aimed at ending nearly half a century of conflict after a ten-year military offensive against the guerrillas failed to deliver a coup de grace.
President Juan Manuel Santos is attempting what many other leaders have tried but failed to do in the past – reach a negotiated deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The former defence minister has seen his popularity slide over the last year with former president Alvaro Uribe, for long a close ally, leading criticism that Mr Santos has been too soft on the FARC. But a peace agreement before the next election in 2014 would all but guarantee Mr Santos a second term.
While security has improved by leaps and bounds since a US-aided offensive against FARC rebels and drug barons began a decade ago, the security forces have been unable to land a decisive blow. The FARC is still a threat and, although weakened, it has stepped up its attacks in the last few years.
Analysts say it is clear the conflict cannot be won by military means alone and the government has a greater chance of negotiating an end to the war from a position of strength than of completely wiping out the rebels.
“We take on these talks with moderate optimism but with the absolute conviction that it is an opportunity that we cannot waste,” Mr Santos told the UN General Assembly late last month.
Nearly two years of secret talks in Cuba led to the formal discussions, which start in Norway this week and then move to Havana.
For many in rural Colombia, the stakes could not be higher. “We’re the ones who suffer, our families, our parents,” said Sara Munoz, a 39-year-old mother of two children who is selling her house to get away from the violence in the province of Cauca. “We have to leave our houses, leaving our homes abandoned to flee to another part because we have children.”
At primary schools in Cauca, school children have regular safety drills, falling to the ground and huddling together as teachers mimic the sound of gunfire outside. There is still frequent fighting in the province and Colombian troops comparing the fighting there with the war in Afghanistan.
Rumours of talks with the FARC – Colombia’s largest insurgent group – have abounded since Santos took office in 2010 and he made early steps to kickstart a peace process with reforms giving land back to peasants displaced by the conflict and paying reparations to its victims.
The failure of the last round of talks a decade ago, when the government ceded territory the size of Switzerland to the FARC and still couldn’t reach a deal, hangs over Mr Santos’ head, but he insists he won’t repeat past mistakes.
Aware he cannot afford to be seen as soft, Santos has refused the FARC’s call for a ceasefire once the peace talks start and instead vowed to step up military operations.
The talks will focus mainly on land reform, drug trafficking and political participation.
Possible sticking points include deciding which FARC leaders will be allowed to participate in politics, who will or will not go to jail for war crimes, and what can be done on land reform since every attempt since the 1960s has failed.
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